By Fred de Fossard.

The Prime Minister has an opportunity to use this Bill to give Britain a real competitive advantage through Brexit.”

The Retained EU Law Bill is having a difficult time. Once at the heart of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’ plans for a deregulatory Brexit, it has been relegated to legislative limbo.

Its Report Stage in the Lords has been delayed, amidst rumours of a government compromise.

Since the Windsor Framework and the pause of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, many Brexiteers fear the REUL Bill might be for the chop. Some believe the Framework will lock the UK into shadow alignment with the EU, or even precipitate its abandonment, as implied by reports in The Financial Times. Rumours of attempts by the Attorney General’s Office and the Northern Ireland Office to exempt Northern Irish law from the Bill have entrenched this view further.

Despite the Prime Minister’s pledge to put 4,000 pieces of Retained EU Law through the shredder, the Government seems faintly embarrassed by the Bill, with silence from ministers about the sort of reforms they envisage.

Despite the Prime Minister’s pledge to put 4,000 pieces of Retained EU Law through the shredder, the Government seems faintly embarrassed by the Bill, with silence from ministers about the sort of reforms they envisage.

The vacuum on behalf of the Prime Minister and Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, has been filled by opposition. Lib Dem peers have peppered the bill with amendments. Even the BBC’s Countryfile has targeted the Bill, suggesting falsely that it imperils our environmental laws. However, signs that Labour is distancing itself from the aggressive amendments suggest the Bill should reach Royal Assent mostly intact this year. Its real opposition is within the Government.

The government’s official line is that the Bill is important for pursuing Brexit opportunities, though ministers themselves are downplaying it. Michael Gove implied it would be a tidying-up exercise of Britain’s statute book, and other ministers have stressed that it will not threaten environmental protections, with plenty of EU laws essentially staying in force.

The Bill’s virtue is that it is both technical and radical. Its elements include ending the supremacy of EU Law; allowing British courts to depart from European judgements; powers to enable the efficient repeal or liberalisation of REUL; and the expiry of all REUL by the end of 2023, albeit with a three-year extension power.

The bill only applies to EU laws that came in as secondary legislation, rather than in Acts of Parliament – such as GDPR, or the Equality Act – because Jacob Rees-Mogg, the then-minister who developed the Bill, did not want to include a swingeing Henry VIII power.

The sunset has caused the most controversy. Some claim that it will leave dangerous gaps in the statute book. Others have attacked the sunset as an executive power grab against Parliament, by removing its ability to scrutinise the expiring regulations, even though Parliament was unable to refuse their imposition while in the EU.

The removal from our statute book of obsolete EU laws – some which regulated crops not grown in Britain, or the 1,500 or so which had been out of use for so long they were found in the National Archives – is good practice, even if the primary gains are administrative. But it also provides a springboard for reforms to significant regulations on intellectual property, clinical trials, product regulation, and the more controversial areas of environmental and labour laws.

This has been difficult, with Whitehall paralysis preventing serious reforms. The common refrain from both Permanent Secretaries and sceptical ministers has been that “we’d like to do these reforms, but not now, maybe tomorrow.” Ministers were told that it would require thousands of new civil servants, on top of the thousands of officials whose jobs are to oversee these laws already. This is implausible, but too few ministers have been willing to prioritise reform.

Ministers were told that it would require thousands of new civil servants, on top of the thousands of officials whose jobs are to oversee these laws already. This is implausible, but too few ministers have been willing to prioritise reform.

This is why the Government appears likely to weaken or remove the sunset clause from the Bill, and repeal only one-fifth of REUL this year. While Grant Shapps was the responsible minister, sources close to him were reported saying a more “sensible” alternative to the sunset was required, and last week those linked to Kemi Badenoch said she inherited a “mess” which needs tidying up.

For all the difficulties in Whitehall, the responsibility lies with ministers. The Brexit Opportunities Unit has kept the Bill alive, and runs a review and reform programme against a lot of departmental resistance. The most effective way of completing this project – it is not yet too late – would be to establish a Cabinet Committee to scrutinise all proposals with a bias toward reform, supported by an external panel unhindered by Whitehall orthodoxy.

Such a model will work if the centre of government drives it. There is a clear political imperative here, which motivated the setting of a 2023 sunset. The longer this process takes, the more it will hang over the general election. Far better to enact reforms this year than let this issue drag on.

The Prime Minister has an opportunity to use this Bill to give Britain a real competitive advantage through Brexit.

At its best, it could kickstart the streamlining of the development of new infrastructure and housing, cut the cost of bringing new medicines to market, and increase productivity in the labour market. But this is only possible if ministers drive their departments to make this a reality. If not now, when?


Fred de Fossard is head of the British Prosperity Unit at the Legatum Institute.

This article was first published on Conservative Home on 1 May 2023.

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